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Will NASA's Mars rover find signs of life? A Q&A with a Curiosity astrobiologist.

NASA's Danny Glavin is among those leading the search for amino acids and nucleobases on the surface of Mars.

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The Mars rover Curiosity — the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission — has 10 instruments to help it characterize the Martian environment and determine if the planet ever had the potential to support life.

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One of these is the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, or SAM. Roughly the size of a microwave oven, SAM — actually a collection of three separate instruments — will analyze samples taken by Curiosity's robotic arm, looking for carbon-based compounds.

MSL participating scientist Danny Glavin, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is one of the SAM team members who will try to determine if the building blocks of life could ever have survived on the surface ofMars. Here, he shares his thoughts on SAM and its role in Curiosity's mission.

What kind of science do you generally do?

Glavin: At NASA-Goddard, I work with a team of researchers in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory. Half my time I spend analyzing meteorites and other materials from space. We've looked at samples returned from the Stardust comet mission, we study lunar samples and meteorites that are found in Antarctica, including meteorites from Mars.

And we're really focused on determining what kind of organic compounds are present in these materials, specifically focused on amino acids and nucleobases, which are the basic building blocks of life. So part of my time is spent working on that research, the meteorite stuff.

The other half of my time I'm devoting towards MSL and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment, where we've been working on a wet chemistry experiment that will target those same types of organic compounds found in some meteorites, the amino acids and nucleobases, through a chemical reaction with the soil and rock materials collected by the rover Curiosity on Mars. [11 Amazing Things Curiosity Can Do]

We've been optimizing that experiment for SAM and are pretty much chomping at the bit, waiting for the opportunity to study rock samples on Mars. So yeah, we're looking forward to the SAM wet chemistry experiments.

What do you do specifically for MSL?

Glavin: I'm a MSL participating scientist and a member of the SAM team, primarily focused on the GCMS — gas chromatography-mass spectrometry — analysis of organic compounds, if they're present in the Martian surface materials, and more specifically this wet chemistry experiment, which is basically a front end extraction for the GCMS analysis.

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